Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How utterly unprecedented.

"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are."
- John Green in The Fault In Our Stars

You'd think the last thing Blade and I would need right now would be to read a book about terminally ill cancer patients, but this weekend we found ourselves reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

(The above video was filmed the week the book was actually released, a little over a month ago. I get annoyed when authors and artists pretend they don't care what anyone thinks about their work because it's all about the process blah blah. I find that unbelievable. I like that John Green comes straight out and says to his readers, "I really hope you like what I made for you!")

The hero/narrator is a 16 year old girl who, because she's been so sick for so long, lives in a pretty small world -- her parents, her doctors, the one friend from school who still bothers to call her sometimes, and the kids at her ever-shrinking kids-with-cancer support group. She thinks it's best to keep her world small so that she devastates fewer people when she inevitably dies. The book is about whether it is possible or even desirable to protect other people by isolating yourself.

What keeps it from being too depressing or sappy is that the characters don't fit the mold for how we mythologize cancer patients, especially kids: They're not unspoiled innocents, and they're not angelic or stoic or especially brave. They don't have some mystical insight into The Meaning Of It All. They're just kids who happen to be very sick. They still get crushes, fight with their parents, play video games, and crack jokes.

John Green said this in an interview with NPR:
"All of the people I've known who were sick — young or old — were still funny. It's important to note or remember that people who are sick and people who are dying aren't dead. ... And so I've known a lot of young people who were very sick but also very, very funny, and often in dark, dark ways." 
The dialogue is tight, smart, and hilarious. One criticism I've read of the book is that "real teenagers aren't like that." That is, real teenagers don't read smart books or make witty comebacks.

This criticism falls flat to me, because it assumes that teenagers are all the same. I knew some shallow, boring kids in high school, but I also knew some quirky, brilliant, thoughtful kids. Just like there is no single kind of cancer patient, there is no single kind of teenager.

The other criticism that keeps popping up in amateur reviews is that young adults (to whom The Fault in Our Stars is actually marketed) aren't mature enough to catch on to the symbolism and the literary references.

Yes, the The Fault In Our Stars is full of nods to The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye (and maybe Finnegan's Wake?), but it would be enjoyable even if you didn't catch onto those references. 

Even so, remember that most people in America who are currently reading The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye -- and, for that matter, Crime and Punishment, The Odyssey, and Hamlet -- are high school kids.* They're being actively taught how to read well. Don't tell them what they can and can't understand.

*This is completely a guess on my part. But how old were you when you first read those books? I'd guess you were younger than 20 unless you are a particularly classy grown-up who somehow missed those books in high school English and yet have pursued them anyway.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The trouble with poets is they see poetry everywhere.

My husband, Blade, and I have seen Peter Mulvey in concert several times now. The first time, it was a surprise for Blade. It was Blade's birthday, and we'd both gotten attached to Peter Mulvey's music that summer, and he happened to be playing for free.* Another time, we saw him with a full house at SPACE in Evanston.

This week, we saw him at Schuba's in Chicago as our Valentine's date.

At most concerts I've been to, the audience either sang so loud that no one could really hear the band or else mingled among themselves with the band's music as a backdrop. At Peter Mulvey concerts, though, whether they're at a bar or a concert hall, people lean forward and listen

Our friend Dan** wrote this in a review of Peter Mulvey's album, Letters from a Flying Machine:
... Mulvey's love for music saturates his own work, which enables listeners to love more fully whatever and whomever they love. ... [W]hen someone else shows you who they are, when they sing honestly, it reminds you of who you are. 
That is probably why we keep going back to Peter Mulvey concerts whenever we get the chance. In fact, we may get another chance in March. Who wants to meet us a Schuba's?

*When we got there, it turns out that we were crashing a birthday party at Chicago's oldest lesbian bar, at which Mulvey was giving a little private concert. We sort of stuck out, though it didn't seem like anyone minded that we were there.

**You may know Dan as the creator of 3eanuts. You should also know him, though, as Freddy Raccoon's handler, which is probably a more demanding job.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Is this not how everyone else plays?

My friend Liz has a YouTube series called How To Liz, in which she plays a character named Liz.*

I went on HowToLiz this week, though, to teach her how to play Words With Friends:

I think "defenestrate" made me crack because I had just sat in on Molly's Latin class, in which she taught some third graders about cognates of fenestra (window).

In real life, Liz usually beats me at Facebook's Words With Friends, which is essentially online Scrabble. I forget about playing on tiles that are worth lots of points and just focus on making any ol' word.

Liz's version is actually kind of hard. It makes me think of the improv game, "Malapropism," in which you point to things and say what they're not. It stretches a muscle in your brain that's easy to neglect -- the muscle of naming what is possible instead of what is obvious. That is a particular strength of Liz's.

*It's a little like how Stephen Colbert plays a character named Stephen Colbert, except that Liz hasn't bought a SuperPAC. If she did -- she does know about politics -- she would probably spend most of the PAC money on temporary tattoos.